BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract

Above: Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

For the previous three years the Bureau of Land Management had 33 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. As we enter the 2017 wildfire season there are none.

In 2014 the agency awarded EU contracts for 33 SEATs that guaranteed one year with a 100-day Mandatory Availability Period and four additional optional years. In 2016 the vendors were notified that two optional years, 2017 and 2018, would not be activated. One of the affected aircraft companies told us that the BLM said the reason was a lack of funds. (UPDATE May 31: Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokesperson, responded today to an earlier mail from us, explaining that the funds allocated in that 2014 contract had been spent, therefore they had to start over again with a new contract.)

In August, 2016 the agency began the solicitation process for a new EU contract. After it was awarded four vendors filed a total of six protests with the Government Accountability Office. As of today, May 30, 2017, four of those have been dismissed and two are still undecided.

Currently the only BLM SEAT contract in effect is a Call When Needed, or On Call contract that was awarded several weeks ago. A couple of days ago there were seven SEATs actively working in the Southwest Geographic Area on an On Call basis.

An aircraft vendor that operates SEATs told us that one of the issues his company is concerned about is the evaluation process for rating and selecting which vendors receive contract awards. He said the BLM places far too much emphasis on the empty weight of the aircraft while not considering enhancements that may add weight, but contribute to effectiveness and safety. The lightest SEAT is automatically favored, he said, while those with a backup radio, single point fueling behind the wing, GPS, a better performing Trotter retardant gate, ADS-B, larger engine, or a larger prop are penalized.

He said, “I just want to see a fair and impartial evaluation”.

One of the factors that almost destroyed the large air tanker industry around the turn of the century was the U.S. Forest Service’s over emphasis on the lowest bid price. This forced potential tanker vendors to resort to discarded aircraft designed for World War II and the Korean War and gave them little incentive to perform routine but expensive inspections and maintenance. In 2002 when the wings literally fell off two large air tankers in mid-air killing five crew members, the USFS started to re-think their lowest cost policy. Over the next 10 years the number of large air tankers on EU contracts declined from 44 to 9. Following that lost decade the USFS contracting process and the vendors’ fleets were reinvented.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the BLM said, “The BLM will ensure that we have adequate SEATs/wildland firefighting resources for the 2017 fire season, regardless of how we contract our aircraft. The BLM will provide an adequate response to all wildfire activity, whether it’s an extreme, normal, or below-normal fire season this year.”

Douglas County, Colorado renews contracts for firefighting aircraft

Douglas County, just south of Denver (map), recently renewed contracts with four fire aviation companies. The agreements are Call When Needed (CWN) and will only be activated when the aircraft are specifically needed.

Three of the contracts are for helicopters, with Rampart Helicopter ServicesHeliQwest International and Trans Aero Ltd. The other is for the 11,600-gallon DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

“Due to the strong possibility of continued dry conditions in and around Douglas County, coupled with the limited air resource availability in the region for the purpose of fighting wildland fire, it is imperative that we have every resource possible available to us,” said the County’s Director of Emergency Management Tim Johnson.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

U.S. Forest Service awards contract for two water scoopers

Aero-Flite will supply two CL-415 air tankers for one to five years.

Above: Aero-Flite’s Tanker 260, a CL-415, at McClellan Air Field, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The daily availability rate for the two Aero-Flite CL-415 air tankers will be $42,285 with an hourly rate of $13,299. That daily rate is higher than all of the 21 large air tankers on contract. And only two large air tankers have a higher hourly rate — one of the DC-10s and the USFS/Coast Guard C-130.

The maximum five-year value of the contract is $142,524,440 for the two aircraft.

It is our understanding that the contract used last year expired. This new solicitation specified that the USFS would hire “up to two” aircraft for a period of time “not to exceed five years”. Obviously the agency made a decision and settled on two scoopers. We checked with Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, who told us that it is definitely a five-year contract.

One Aero-Flite CL-415 was on USFS contract in 2015, Tanker 260 (N389AC). The two this year are N386AC and N392AC. We don’t yet have their tanker numbers.

In past years the Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted for one or two twin engine water scoopers, CL-215s I believe, but no longer. This year they will have at least one amphibious water-scooping Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT), an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more, Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA, told us earlier this month.

There will also be a large number of non-water-scooping SEATs, perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out.

We updated the 2016 tanker list originally published March 2, 2016

The twin engine CL-415 can carry up to 1,600 gallons of water, refilling the tank by skimming along the surface of a lake as water enters the scoop that is lowered from the belly of the aircraft.

tanker 260 scoop
The scoop on the bottom of Tanker 260 used to fill the tank as the aircraft skims along the surface of a lake. Photo by Bill Gabbert.


Air Tankers at Dryden
Air Tankers, mostly water scoopers, at Dryden (Ontario) Regional Airport in June, 2015 before they were dispersed around the province of Ontario, Canada to deal with the rising number of wildfires. Photo by Chris Sherwin.

CAL FIRE expects to buy up to 12 new helicopters

Above: One of the few CAL FIRE helicopters that still has “CDF” painted on the tail. The photo was taken March 24, 2016 at the CAL FIRE facilities at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento, California by Bill Gabbert.

It’s not often that we see a federal or state agency with wildland fire responsibilities purchase a fleet of brand new aircraft. More typically they are forced to dig through the boneyard of discarded war birds in the Arizona desert hoping to cobble something together that won’t kill their pilots and firefighters.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CAL FIRE, hopes to create a new paradigm with a fleet of helicopters right off the assembly line. The agency issued a solicitation to buy nine helicopters — about three a year for three years, with an option to spring for an even dozen.

CAL FIRE helicopter
A DynCorp employee works on a CAL FIRE helicopter at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

For decades CAL FIRE has been using Huey helicopters they salvaged from the military scrap heap. The 12 they have today have been meticulously cared for by skilled professionals and upgraded in many ways, morphing into “Super Hueys”. We heard one pilot say he loves flying them. Many people will tell you that just because an aircraft has a couple of wars and a handful of decades on its Hobbs meter, that does not necessarily disqualify it from being a very useful and safe piece of equipment. But after rebuilding, replacing, and rehabbing a large percentage of the machine, and finding that you sometimes have to make your own parts because they have not been manufactured for 20 to 50 years you can reach a point of diminishing returns.

When CAL FIRE received the bids on their helicopter solicitation, they found significant differences in how the potential vendors interpreted the contract language. One company was bidding on what they assumed were apples, while another was picturing oranges. So the solicitation and bids were all thrown out. It’s back to the drawing board where they hope to develop clear instructions and will be sure they are understood.

But they don’t have the luxury of time. The state’s Administration has set aside the money pending the Legislature’s approval but there is concern within CAL FIRE that if they don’t commit it very soon, it will disappear. Their plan is to rewrite the solicitation, advertise it, receive bids, and award a contract all within a period of weeks. In other words, they do not plan to dither for 555 days like the U.S. Forest Service did in 2012 and 2013 when they went through the excruciating process of contracting to lease seven “next-generation air tankers” v. 1.0. And that was for LEASING — not buying a fleet of new aircraft. After watching that painful USFS process for more than a year, we placed a timer in the side bar of our website, counting the number of days that had elapsed since the solicitation had been issued, but no contract awarded.

CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program Manager and Chief Pilot, Barry C. Lloyd, is working with the state’s contracting specialists, the Department of General Services, to get this procurement done. It’s unknown how this task compares to his being shot down twice over Vietnam, but he will undoubtably be relieved when it is brought to a peaceful resolution.

Large air tanker lineup for 2016

21 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contract in 2016.

Above: Air tanker 43, a P2V, fires up an engine at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(UPDATED May 24, 2016)

The number of large and very large air tankers on exclusive use contracts for fighting wildland fires will be about the same as the way the fire season ended in 2015, with 21 signed up, counting the HC-130H operated by the U.S. Forest Service.

Here is the breakdown by type of aircraft, and then by company:

P2V: 6
BAe-146: 5
RJ85: 4
DC-10: 2
C-130: 2
MD87: 2
CL-415: 2

Neptune: 11
Aero Flite: 6
Aero Air: 2
10 Tanker: 2
Coulson: 1
U.S. Forest Service: 1

The numbers above only include the large and very large air tankers that are on exclusive use contract. In addition the USFS will have between two and three water scooping amphibious twin engine CL-415 air tankers. One is on contract now and they have a solicitation out now that will add one or two more to the fleet.

The plans, which could change, are for three of the P2Vs to begin work in March, on the 3rd, 18th, and 28th. Most of the other large air tankers will start in April, but six will come on duty in May and June. All of the next-generation large air tankers are contracted for a minimum of 160 days while the “legacy” aircraft are signed up for 140 to 180 days.

There will also be a large number of single engine air tankers (SEATs), perhaps dozens, on exclusive use. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for that contract and we hope to hear in April or May how that turned out. The USFS has a solicitation out for one SEAT and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will have at least one amphibious water-scooping SEAT, an Air Tractor 802F (N6159F) supplied by Aero Spray, and expect to add one more in the next few weeks, according to Robyn Broyles, spokesperson for the BIA.

Randy Eardley of the BLM told us they will have four AT 802Fs on 75-day contracts working out of Fairbanks this year. He said there are two each from Air Spray and Aero Spray.

(The chart below was revised May 24, 2016. Some costs were updated and there was some swapping of aircraft from one Next Gen contract to another.)



If you want to print the list, this .pdf document will probably turn out better than the image above.

There will also be at least five or six large air tankers available on Call When Needed contracts. Several companies are in the process of converting more airliners into air tankers and when those are finished and carded might be added to the CWN list.

If the wildfire season turns into more than what these 27 air tankers can handle, the military can activate up to eight C-130s equipped with the pressurized slip-in 3,000-gallon Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS. However a MAFFS unit is being used by one of the HC-130H aircraft that is in the process of being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS. That leaves just seven MAFFS units available. In a few years all seven of the former Coast Guard HC-130Hs will be de-militarized, will have gone through heavy maintenance, and will be equipped with a removable gravity-powered retardant delivery system, again freeing up all of the MAFFS equipment.

loading retardant P2V
Loading retardant into a P2V at Redding, California August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Another source for air tankers are the eight CV580s available through agreements with the state of Alaska and Canada.

On March 1 we wrote about the recently awarded exclusive use contracts for 34 large Type 1 helicopters. The USFS contracts issued three years ago for 31 exclusive use Type 2 helicopters are still in effect.

Jennifer Jones, spokesperson for the USFS, told us there are “approximately 200 helicopters of all types [that] may be available through Call When Needed Contracts”.

Later we will have more details about the status of the seven HC-130H aircraft being transferred to the USFS from the Coast Guard and converted to air tankers.

Contracts awarded for 34 Type 1 firefighting helicopters

Unlike the last time a Type 1 helicopter contract was awarded, the information was released without a Freedom of Information Act request.

Above: A Siller Helicopters CH-54A (H-781); a Type 1 helicopter. Photo by Siller.

Contracts have been awarded to 13 companies for a total of 34 Type 1 firefighting helicopters. The exclusive use U.S. Forest Service contracts issued on February 26 are effective through April 30, 2017, with the possibility of three one-year renewal option periods.

Below are the companies receiving contracts along with the number of helicopters each will be providing:

Central Copters: 2
Columbia Helicopters: 5
Billings Flying Service: 2
Firehawk Helicopters: 4
Helicopter Transport Services: 5
Helimax Aviation: 2
Mountain West Helicopters: 1
Heliquest International: 2
Swanson Group Aviation: 2
Siller Helicopters: 4
Timberline Helicopters: 2
Rainier Helicopter International: 1
Croman Corporation: 2

A company conspicuous by its absence is Erickson. The company had eight Air Cranes on the last Type 1 contract that was issued in 2013.  We have reached out to Erickson to determine why they are not on the list, but did not immediately receive a response. There is a theory on a helicopter forum that when Erickson purchased Evergreen Helicopters, Inc. (and their 64 aircraft) and the Brazilian company Air Amazonia (and their 14 helicopters), they no longer qualified as a “small business” and lost their eligibility to compete for the contract.

Even though Erickson is not involved this year there are still nine Sikorsky helicopters similar to the Air Crane that will be flying over fires for the next one to four years. Helicopter Transport Services has five and Siller has four. The models are CH-54A, CH-54B, SK-64A and SK-64E.

Federal Business Opportunities (FBO) posted the information about this latest award on their web site. When the 2013 contracts were issued the U.S. Forest Service refused to divulge which companies received them. We first asked for the information on April 16, 2013, hoping to receive it well before the western wildfire season got underway. We were told that the list was only available if we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which we did. After many delays, countless emails, excuses, and being sent incorrect information, we finally received it September 26, 2013 as the western wildfire season was beginning to wind down and more than five months after asking for it. At the time we wrote:

It is absurd that this information about how taxpayers’ money is being spent is not easily available to citizens.

The total four-year estimated cost of this latest contract is $594 million. The citizens have a right to know this information.

We are pleased that the FBO is being more transparent this year.

Forest Service awards contracts for seven additional air tankers

Conair RJ85 first flight
The first flight of Conair’s BAe Avro RJ85 air tanker in September, 2013 built for Aero-Flite. Conair photo by Jeff Bough.

Today the U.S. Forest Service announced contract awards for seven additional large and very large air tankers. The aircraft being added to the exclusive use contracted fleet are four BAe-146s operated by Neptune Aviation, two RJ85s flown by Aero-FLite, and one DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier.

The contract solicitation, issued November 26, 2015, is for what the USFS calls “next generation” air tankers, which must be turbine or turbofan (jet) powered, can cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and have a retardant capacity of at least 3,000 gallons. The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons, while the others can hold up to about 3,000 gallons.

This brings the total number of next-gen air tankers on exclusive use contracts to 14. There are also seven “legacy” air tankers on exclusive use contracts, all operated by Neptune. Six are Korean War vintage P2Vs which usually carry about 2,100 gallons and are powered by two 18-cylinder radial engines. There is also one BAe-146 on the legacy contract.

These new next-gen awards, which begin this year, are for a five-year period with options for five additional years, with at least 160 days of mandatory availability every year.

The daily rates for Neptune’s BAe-146s, which is paid even if the aircraft is not used that day, varies during the possible 10-year period from $29,000 to $32,640 each day, while the hourly flight rate is from $8,000 to $9,274.

The daily rate for Aero-Flite’s Rj85 are from $28,581 to $35,546, and their flight rate is $7,559 to $9,862 per hour. The daily rate for the DC-10, a Very Large Air Tanker, are from $34,000 to $35,000, and the hourly rate is $13,600.

These rates do not include the cost of fuel, which will be paid by the government.

Most of the contracts the U.S. Forest Service has attempted to issue in recent years for large and very large air tankers have been protested, which suspends the activation of the contract until the Government Accountability Office adjudicates the dispute. This contract has already been protested by Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker even before the closing date of the solicitation. However, the GAO decided in July to deny the protests. But that does not mean that there will not be additional protests now that the contracts have been awarded.

More information:

Details of the rates awarded under the new contract.

The 2015 large air tanker lineup for US Forest Service


Air Tankers June 2015

All 13 of the large and very large fixed wing air tankers that have been on standard exclusive use contracts since last year have started their Mandatory Availability Period and are on duty.  The last two, MD-87s operated by Aero Air, began in the first half of June and should end in mid-December. All 13 air tankers except for three are scheduled to work 160 days. The exceptions are two P2Vs, on duty for 180 days each, and another P2V which is planned for 140 days. All of the P2Vs are operated by Neptune Aviation.

The handful of air tankers that were brought on as “additional equipment” on contracts in 2014 will not be working under the same arrangement this year — the “additional equipment” concept is no longer being used by the Department of Agriculture. Those extra aircraft will have to be employed under new contracts for each air tanker or come on under the Call When Needed contracts that were awarded earlier this month.

The U.S. Forest Service is attempting to issue exclusive use contracts for “up to seven” more next-generation air tankers. The agency hoped to have them working by May 30, but the process came to a screeching halt a couple of months ago.

Two companies, Coulson Aviation and Erickson Aero Tanker, filed protests about this latest round of potential contracts. The protests were lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the agency with the responsibility of deciding whether the protests have merit, which they are required to do by July 9 for Coulson’s protest and July 17 for Erickson’s. Both companies later amended their original complaints, which complicates the procedure for the GAO, so it is unlikely that anything will be decided much before those mid-July due dates.

Tanker 118 HC-130H
The Coast Guard HC-130H that will become Tanker 118. Undated photo by the Coast Guard.

A 14th air tanker is expected to be ready to fight fire by the end of July, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. That aircraft is Tanker 118, one of the seven HC-130Hs owned by the Coast Guard that are in the process of undergoing major maintenance and conversion to air tankers.

T-118, Government Owned/Contractor Operated, has been at McClellan Airport for a couple of weeks and is being used, with a lead plane, for training flight crews. It does not have a conventional gravity-based retardant tank, yet, but will be using one of the eight Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that use compressed air to force 3,000 gallons of retardant out of the internal slip-in tank. Eventually it and the other six HC-130Hs will have a gravity tank, using the same basic concept employed by all of the Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated large air tankers.

The hourly and daily rates for the HC-130H are estimated at this early stage of deployment of the aircraft, Jones told us.

“The rates are expected to decrease after the program is stood up and the expenses can be spread across multiple aircraft”, she said. “Costs incorporate many aspects of the program, including hangar facilities, U.S. Coast Guard engineering and airworthiness support, maintenance and pilot contracts, and MAFFS maintenance.”

Tanker 118 does not have a tail number yet, since it is still owned by the Coast Guard. Later, possibly this year, it will depart McClellan to finish the conversion to an air tanker, getting the gravity retardant tank and a new paint job– after which the title can be transferred to the USFS.

A second HC-130H will arrive at McClellan in a few months and this year will be used only for training. The other five HC-130Hs will gradually enter the USFS air tanker fleet over the next several years.